I watched the trailers for An American Haunting and; immediately recognizing it as an adaptation of the case of the “Bell Witch” haunting, held out hope that, in a case of paranormal activity that's so rich in and of itself, it would be a great film - not only great, but stellar. In fact I spent my whole day before preparing the wonderful, glowing things I would say about it… so I guess my disappointment is partly my own fault, but that doesn't excuse After Darks poor handling of the material, sloppy execution, and flat out mishandling of the historical facts.
We open the film on an old stone home stead, followed by a nausea inducing case from the cold Missouri woods into the safety of the house. Apparently someone or something is chasing a dark haired very frightened teenage girl into the house (though you wouldn’t guess it from the violently swinging camera angles). As she bolts nuts into the house and locks he bedroom door behind her she becomes aware that whatever it is has not stopped pursuing her. As she glances in paranoid terror around the room she catches the reflection in the mirror, one that is not her own. She then wakes up screaming (it was a dream… apparently) and her mother rushes to her side asking if she’s had another nightmare. Then, almost as an afterthought, mom notices an ominous looking porcelain doll (of course) and some loose-leaf papers. After lecturing her daughter that she shouldn’t go up into the attic, she hypocritically takes the notebook and goes downstairs to read it, promptly beginning our narrative.
Now, I realize that a very small portion of the audience is going to be privy to the events that happened to the Bells… and half their church… AND current (at the time) President Andrew Jackson (something not mentioned in the movie that might have made a decent hook), I also realize that many of the day to day details of history are up for grabs – but certain indisputable facts are NOT. Their first transgression against the timeline was the opening scene. Anyone with enough of a background in paranormal investigation knows that the Bell house does not stand anymore; it was burned to the ground by paranoid neighbors long ago. If a passing comment had been made at anytime during the opener that the house was historical and had been rebuilt I could have forgiven it, I also understand that Hollywood needs a segue, but by the second time it happened I had almost walked out of the theater. About fifteen minutes into the film we meet Kate Batts, a surly and disagreeable woman reputed to be a witch. Apparently there had been some land dispute between her and John Bell over a parcel he was looking after until she could pay for it (or some shit, ether way it’s a lie). What the film doesn’t bother to tell you is that while Kate Batts was INDEED a surly and disagreeable woman who WAS reputed to be a witch, she was long dead by the time the Bell haunting started and largely theorized to be the ghost behind all the trouble. You see she and John were engaged to be wed in her native Halifax before she was “mysteriously” found dead along side a well on her property (I honestly didn’t throw that in for the Ring reference, it’s just how the story goes). John Bell then “mysteriously” married Lucy, and “mysteriously” moved to Missouri (catch my drift?) where the trouble started only after the Bells had made life for themselves and after spawning a brood of 12 children (that fact is never really touched on ether).
After this merciless butchering of history things start to get into a better groove; happening much the way they did historically. A large black dog hanging around the property, scratching on the walls and windows, and spiritual assault becomes normal for the Bells. Unfortunately even here the best parts of the haunting are cut out. Often the Bell children struck by sticks and stones by invisible hands, Lucy was pelted with fruits that materialized from mid air, and wave after wave of church parishioner experienced chair hurlings and glass breaking. Part of the endless stroke that is An American Haunting seems to be the repetition of certain sequences over and over to the point that they lose their impact, preferring to ignore the depth of the source material in favor of tedious slapping and hair pulling scenes.
And really even after all of that I could have given this film a passing grade if it were even a good movie, but it’s not. Justifiably quiet scenes are broken by loud shock chords and jump scares; the script is such a jumbled knot that not even an eagle scout could undo it. To make matters worse the focus of the film is Betsy Bell, and while the haunting did affect her MOST (even becoming possessed by the witch on occasion) it also affected a LOT of people. Narrowing the subject only made it harder for Rachel Hurd-Wood (who, in my opinion needs to work on her skills in the first place) who doesn’t’ look like she knows whether she’s coming or going half the time (and in a script like this, who could?). Sissy Spacek and Donald Sutherland are good, but you can only polish a turd so much before it just melts. If I didn’t want so badly to do the review I would have walked out.
Just when I think An American Haunting could not possibly cut any more bacon of the hogs ass of history they manage to throw in one last big mistake (excuse me, artistic difference) in before the credits roll. In the shadows we she John bell lying in bed very sick (this, so far, is basically true toward the end of his life John was bedridden). We see someone pour (or rather, don’t see anything at all) him a spoonful of medicine, or so we think. After a few sputtering coughs he dies, and there’s no one in the room. While it is true that the ghost had switched his tonic with poison on at least one occasion, it was unsuccessful. People say the ghost caused his death because she drove him to madness and predicted WHEN he would die, so when a believer says the witch caused John bells death, as skeptic could just as easily (and just as correctly) say the John Bell died of exhaustion.
Of course, because Bret Monahan and Courtney Solomon painted themselves into a corner by making Kate Batts a living character they had to come up with SOMETHING to end it, and that something is probably the lamest excuse for a haunting I’ve ever herd. They claim that the Bell witch was a poltergeist created by Betsy Bell at a retaliation for her fathers’ sexual molestation. A teenage girl creating a poltergeist is not unheard of, but the threat of eternal hell fire was normally enough to keep people in line in 1800. Besides, they had natives and slaves to rape, why would John Bell rape his daughter?
After all this I STILL wasn’t angry, disappointed, but not angry – until they tried to justify themselves. Just before the credits roll we see two definitions light up the screen. The first is of “haunting” the second is of “poltergeist” followed by what I would describe as an authors note explaining that what we have just seen is “one of many theory’s” on the Bell Witch haunting. I have news for you, when your facts aren’t straight it’s called a lie, and that’s how I ended up feeling as I stomped out to my car, lied to. I felt like standing on my seat and screaming “it’s not historically accurate, the truth is much more engaging and frightening, and we all need to read more as a country so that when shit like is gets produced we all know better and ask for refunds”, but instead I just grumbled to myself and went home pissed
I guess my final cautionary note is; Be aware. If you want to watch An American Haunting realize that the only truth to be found in its viewing is haphazardly holding together a hedge maze of crap. At first I was a little afraid of writing this review, thinking I may offend someone at After Dark films, and then I realized I don’t care. I have very little respect for anyone who butchers a story so unrecognizably and tries to pass it off for the truth. My moral compass is raging and I don’t think they should be able to get away with it. If you want to know what really happened, I suggest picking up a copy of “Our Family Troubles” by Richard Bell (the youngest, who also lived through a secondary, residual haunting when only he, Adam, and Lucy Bell were left in the house. Maybe I’m making a eulogy at my own funeral, but I doubt anyone will be singing “Row Me Up Some Brandy O” in celebration as the witch did at John Bell’s.